An Elkins Park native now living in Israel explains why he felt compelled to drive all day to be present at the funeral of the three kidnapped teenagers.
On Tuesday, I found myself standing in a crowd of 50,000 fellow Israelis — religious, secular, West Bank settlers and Tel Aviv residents. Sun searing down on us, sweat dripping down our backs, we had come together to say goodbye to Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, whose kidnapping and murder had captivated the entire country for the past 18 days.
Earlier that day I had attended a more private memorial ceremony for Naftali, a dual Israeli-American citizen, in his hometown of Nof-Ayalon. A few thousand people stood outside the local synagogue and listened to the chief Rabbi of Nof-Ayalon, the minister of education, Naftali’s grandfathers and his parents. His mother, Racheli, is one of the three mothers who have taken center stage in this tragedy, recently traveling to Geneva to speak to the United Nations Human Rights Council and calling on the world to aid the boys through action, a call that fell on deaf ears.
Over the past 18 days, Israel has ridden the ups and downs of this tragic event. We watched, stunned, as word spread that three teenagers had been kidnapped on their way home from school. We felt hope as security forces attempted to track the missing boys and bring them home. And today we cried as three bodies were lowered into the ground at the Modi’in Municipal Cemetery.
This tragic story captured the nation's attention in a way that stories about victims of suicide bombings and rocket attacks don’t. We met and got to know these three as boys with the possibility for a future. Although we later learned that they were most likely shot and killed within the first hour of captivity, the country got to know them as boys who were alive somewhere, waiting to be freed. This made their death that much harder.
For 18 days, we hoped and we believed. Even when our brains told us that they were probably dead, our hearts continued to believe that they might still be alive somewhere, despite the odds, for what other option do we have here in Israel other than to maintain hope against all odds?
In response to these killings, Israel as a society is angry and boy, do we have a right to be angry. Suggestions for a response have ranged from renewed settlement construction to a re-occupation of Gaza, to continued house demolitions in Hebron.
I personally believe that focusing on the possible responses distracts from the situation at hand and sells short what has occurred over these past two and a half weeks. For three families, it doesn’t matter how the Israeli army reacts. For three families, no amount of settlement construction or attacks in Gaza will bring back their children. Over the past 18 days, the lives of three families have been changed forever, and this change is irreversible, no matter how strong the military response.
On my way back from the funeral I stopped at a gas station in Ofakim, a small city near the Gaza border, for coffee and a quick break from driving. The man working behind the cash register was wearing an Argentina soccer jersey.
As Argentina had played in the World Cup earlier in the day, I asked how the team did. He told me he had no idea, that he had been watching live coverage of the funeral all day and couldn’t stop crying.
“Who cares about soccer on a day like today?” he asked me.
I told him that I was on my way back from the funeral. Surprised, he asked me what had prompted me to drive two hours each way in excruciating traffic, all to say goodbye to three boys and to support three families I had never even met and on the surface had very little in common with.
I responded that, for whatever reason, I felt a strong connection to the families and an incredibly passionate desire to be present at the funeral. When he looked at me skeptically, I continued, telling him that the way that Racheli Fraenkel talked — her intonation, her mannerisms — reminded me of my own mother who had passed away a few months ago.
To me, it seemed like a practical, if not easy decision to spend all day driving to and from the funeral, for after 18 days, 18 days of excruciating sadness and anxiety and prayer and hope and unity, the three mothers — Racheli Fraenkel, Bat Galim Shaar and Iris Yifrach — had become all of our mothers, and their three boys had become all of our brothers.
Who would not drive all day to bid farewell to a beloved brother as he is laid to his eternal rest?
Originally from Elkins Park and a former member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Benjamin Weitz currently lives in Kibbutz Urim, Israel. He is a squadron commander in a combat intelligence unit in the IDF.